Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Walt Disney
1901 - 1966

Forest Lawn Glendale

Walt Disney was a pioneering animator, studio executive and the most honored person in the history of the Academy Awards.

After serving briefly as a Red Cross ambulance driver in France during the closing months of World War I, Disney returned to the United States and enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute, where he met fellow animator Ub Iwerks. They created a series of cartoons called "Newman's Laugh-O-Grams" for the Newman theater chain. Disney was not successful with managing the business's cash and the studio profits were not sufficient to cover the employees salaries, and the studio went bankrupt. Disney came to Hollywood in 1923 and, in partnership with his brother, Roy, and Iwerks, began producing a series combining live action with animation, called "Alice in Cartoonland."

In 1927, Disney and Iwerks started their "Oswald the Lucky Rabbit" cartoon series, and the following year, created the character that may be the most recognized figure around the world - Mickey Mouse. (Disney originally wanted to call the character Mortimer Mouse, but his wife urged him to use the name Mickey.)

There are two versions of the story of Mickey's birth. One is that Disney was inspired by a friendly mouse who visited him at his drawing board. The other, less heart-warming version is that the Disney brothers and Iwerks were trying to think of a new cartoon character to replace Oswald. Someone suggested a cat, but there were already several cartoon cats. The next suggestion was a mouse and, when they couldn't think of any other cartoon mouses, they used that. Mickey Mouse made his film debut in "Plane Crazy" (1928), which featured Mickey, inspired by Charles Lindbergh's recent flight from New York to Paris, building a plane to take his girlfriend, Minnie, for a ride. Mickey and Minnie's next film, "Gallopin' Gaucho" (1928), featured their visit to a cantina, and Mickey's battle with a cat. Mickey's third film, "Steamboat Willie" (1928), was the first animated film with synchronized sound, and featured Disney providing Mickey's high-pitched voice. Rather than just using sound to give his characters voices, Disney incorporated sound as a major part of the cartoon. For example, when a goat eats the sheet music for "Turkey in the Straw," Minnie cranks the goat's tail, and it plans the tune. Mickey and Minnie also use various animals to create an orchestra. "Steamboat Willie" was a huge success for Disney, and he later added sound to Mickey's first two films.

With Disney and Iwerks sharing the writing and directing duties, Mickey and Minnie appeared in dozens of comedy shorts during the next few years, with their growing collection of friends, including Donald Duck, who first appeared in 1934, Goofy and Pluto. In 1932, Disney received his first Academy Award, a special Oscar given to him for creating Mickey Mouse.

With Mickey's popularity growing, Disney's operation was forced to grow to keep up with the demand for more cartoons. Disney also created the "Silly Symphonies" cartoon series, in which the action on the screen is synchronized to match a pre-recorded sound track, rather than the other way around. The first in the series was "The Skeleton Dance" (1929), and the best-known and most successful was "The Three Little Pigs" (1933). Disney also launched a new cartoon innovation - color - with "Flowers and Trees" (1932), which won Disney his second Academy Award, and his first in the competitive field of Best Cartoon Short.

In addition to supplying Mickey's voice for the first 20 years of his cartoon life, Disney also provided the inspiration for much of Mickey's personality. Like Disney, and unlike most other cartoon characters, Mickey wasn't particularly funny. He didn't make funny faces or say funny things. The humor from the Mickey Mouse cartoons usually came from the situations, and Mickey's unswerving determination to accomplish his goal, despite any obstacles that might get in his way, including the hot-tempered Donald Duck, the witless Goofy and the clumsy Pluto.

The growth of Mickey Mouse as an enterprise started in 1930, when Disney was offered $300 to put Mickey's image on a school notebook. From that point on, Disney character merchandise became a major source of income for the Disney studio. The same year, Mickey started to appear in a daily newspaper comic strip, which kept the cartoon mouse in the eyes and minds of the buying public. At the same time, the Disney studio was turning out a new cartoon shorts every three to four weeks. Mickey's universal popularity might be traced to the fact that, among cartoon characters, he was a true Renaissance mouse. He went everywhere, and did everything. Mickey held a wide assortment of jobs, traveled the world, climbed mountains, explored oceans, and participated in every imaginable sport and pastime.

In 1934, Disney took another risk, and started work on the first feature-length animated film - "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), a musical classic that remains popular after more than 60 years. Disney's "Fantasia" (1940) was a controversial attempt to use animation to interpret various pieces of classical music, and is now also recognized as a film classic. Disney added animated documentaries to his repertoire with "New Spirit" (1942), which featured Donald Duck's misadventures filling out his income tax forms to help explain the federal tax system, and earned Disney's first Academy Award nomination in the Best Documentary category. Live-action documentaries were added with "Victory Through Air Power" (1943), nature documentaries with "Seal Island" (1948), and action films with "Treasure Island" (1950).

In 1954, Disney came to television with a weekly anthology series, originally called "Disneyland," but best known as "The Wonderful World of Disney." Disney hosted the show from 1954 until 1966. In the 1950s, Disney phased out the cartoon shorts, and focused on the other film departments. But Mickey Mouse wasn't out of a job. In 1955, Disney opened his Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, CA, a 160-acre fantasy-amusement park, with Mickey as the official host and ambassador. Disneyland, which has undergone numerous expansions over the years, remains one of the world's top tourist attractions. "The Mickey Mouse Club" also debuted on television in 1955, and helped launch the acting careers of original Mousketeers Annette Funicello, Paul Petersen and Johnny Crawford. In recent years, Britney Spears, Christina Aquliera and Keri Russell all wore the mouse ears as members of "The New Mickey Mouse Club" cast.

The growing Disney empire includes Disney World, which opened in Florida in 1971; Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983; and EuroDisney, which opened in France in 1992, in addition to the Disney film studio.

During his career, Disney received 64 individual Academy Award nominations, and won 26 times - both all-time records. Most of Disney's nominations and awards were for cartoon shorts, but he also won four awards for Best Documentary. In 1941, Disney won the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which honors "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production." Perhaps an even more amazing statistic is that, for 31 years, from 1931 to 1962, Disney was nominated for at least one Academy Award every year but one - 1940. The year after that incredible string of nominations finally ended, Disney won his first and only Best Picture award for "Mary Poppins" (1963).

The area in front of Disney's grave is often full of flowers and small plastic figurines of his most famous characters, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, left behind by visitors. Perhaps partially due to the fact that Disney's grave is hidden and difficult to find, rumors sprung up after his death that his body had been cryogenically frozen and hidden somewhere, perhaps even at Disneyland. Another interesting fact that encouraged the rumors was that Disney's will didn't include any instructions or provisions for a funeral or burial. However, about a year after his death, Disney's estate made a payment of more than $40,000 to Forest Lawn for the burial space and memorial plaque.

Buried with Disney are his wife, Lillian Bounds Disney (1899 - 1997), and his son-in-law, Robert B. Brown. The plaque also includes the name of his daughter, Sharon M. Disney Brown Lund (1936 - 1993), with the notation, "ashes scattered in paradise." The plaque contains space for a total of eight names. Disney's parents, Elias Disney (1859 - 1941) and Flora Disney (1868 - 1938), are buried in Forest Lawn's Great Mausoleum.

Disney was born Walter Elias Disney on Dec. 5, 1901, in Chicago, IL. He died on Dec. 15, 1966, in Los Angeles, CA.

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